Have you struggled to FEEL beautiful? If so, we hope this account of Sonya Renee’s journey to Radical Self Love helps you further down the road! Recorded at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington DC for the NPR show Snap Judgement! Here’s to sweaty knees and an RADICALLY UNAPOLOGETIC LIFE!
Text of the video is below:
My mama had sweaty knees. Your mama probably had sweaty knees too. We know this because for nearly a decade, longer if we were unlucky we sat between our mamas sweaty knees to have any myriad of atrocities committed to our scalps. My mama braided, pressed, ponytailed my hair and every six weeks I got a “relaxer” I can assure you there was NOTHING relaxing about having 9 year old Black girl hair. Actually, it seemed as if there was nothing worse you could have. See, there were commercials; the ones that never had people with faces or hair like mine. There were the products with Black women on the box with shiny, long straight hair, also not like mine. The only time I had long flowing hair was when I would dance around my bedroom with a white towel hanging down my back looking more like a nun than a model. And then there was my mother and her sheer disdain and short temperedness each time I sat between her sweaty knees to begin the process of tugging, brushing and snatching back my hair. My mother, a woman of 5’4 on her best day had the hands of HERCULES! She could likely rip the steel rods from beneath the very flesh of the empire state building if she wanted. But instead she used those hands to braid my hair. If I squirmed BOP went the brush on my on the head, “Stop all that moving!” If I reached to touch my scalp, BAP, I got popped on the fingers, “Get YOUR HANDS OUT YOUR HEAD!” If I cried, CRACK, “Hush it up before I give you something to cry about.” I know this all sounds awfully abusive and it was. But the truth was my mother just wanted her daughter to be beautiful.
And when she finished…my hair was a work of art. I was an African princess, a Black Goddess, Queen of the pretty girls everywhere… until I went to school. In school I was just a dark-skinned baldheaded Black girl. And NO ONE wanted to be that. The first things to die under the heavy weight of my mother’s palms were the hair follicles on the side of my head. My mother would pull my hair so tightly that I had permanent bald spots by 3rd grade. So not only was my hair short, in some places it was non-existent. And each morning when I stepped foot on the school bus, headed toward Woolslair elementary school, I would be reminded how far from beautiful I truly was.
First, it was Sonya Tywman, 4 years older than me, and mean as they made them. She always started it off, a chant if you will, “Sonya” stomp clap stomp stomp clap, “Sonya” stomp clap stomp stomp clap…”Sonya, Sonya BALD SPOTS!” And then the bus would begin. “Sonya, Sonya Bald Spots.” stomp clap stomp stomp clap; they would all sing in unison as I wept in the seat closest to the front of the bus. This felt like the entirety of the 30 minute bus ride. This felt like the entirety of school life. Although, I am sure it was not. But Sonya Tywman and the kids of Bus 35 permanently planted themselves on brain. They became the chorus of my most visceral insecurity, the background music of my adolescents. My first date, “Sonya, Sonya Bald Spots!”. The first time I kissed a boy, ”Sonya, Sonya Bald Spots.” Meeting my new dorm mates in college, “Sonya, Sonya Bald Spots” the chorus sang just behind my shoulder every day. Some nights I would wake up from sleep certain they would be hovering above my bed, singing my misery.
I was beginning to believe there would be no respite from the chasm of hair shame, that is …UNTIL the 90’s. LL Cool J told me he wanted a girl with extensions in her hair and I thought, “FINALLY!” and discovered it was possible to add hair to my head and that is what I did. They called them micros and they were tiny braids that allowed me to look ethnic and have long hair all at the same time Little did I know just beyond the horizon of micro braids was the promised land all baldheaded Black girls sought, the Shining City on a Hill… the holy heaven of HAIR WEAVE. I had never heard of weave until I was in 9th grade and became heightenedly aware that Black girls across the land seemed to all have sprouted shoulder length hair, literally overnight! I was amazed, in awe that it was possible to opt out of being a Baldheaded Black girl. All I had to do was GLUE additional hair to my head and from hence forth no one had to know the shame lurking beneath the pounds of maybe human hair I was piling upon my head.
Unfortunately my hair heaven quickly turned to hair hell as I spun recklessly in a decade long cyclone of hair stress that followed the same pattern each year: relax my hair( leaving painful chemical burns in my scalp) use glue, add weave, watch hair begin to break off like splintered wood as a result of the glue, lose lots of hair, buy more hair for microbraids, wait for it to grow back, take braids out, relax hair and start the cycle all over again. It was sheer exhaustion until in 2001 I discovered the HOLY GRAIL of hair solutions for baldheaded Black girls. I discovered WIGS! Up until that point, I thought of wigs like a 1970’s relics, items that were phenomenally UNSEXY but not these new wigs. These were beautiful and I wanted to be beautiful and wigs were my ticket.
For eleven years I bought wigs like some women buy shoes, like rich men buy cars, like Snooky buys tanning bed hours. I had gone through hundreds of wigs and thousands of dollars, always looking for a new style and cut. Eventually the wigs became me. They let me forget about Sonya Tywman and Bus 35. They helped me forget the chemical burns from relaxers and my mama’s sweaty knees. They helped me forget… I wasn’t beautiful. That is until I took them off. And then, like Cinderella at the end of the ball, I became 9 years old and alone on a bus headed to Woolslair elementary school again and I swore I would never go back there so I started taking the wigs off less and less. To walk the dog, I grabbed a wig. To swim at the beach I put on a wig. I had lovers who knew me for years and never saw me without the wig. And even when I began doing poetry in 2004, performing around the world, sharing poems and a whole movement about unapologetically loving our bodies I did it all in my wigs.
Until one day, let’s say, today, I woke up and realized I had been living in a tiny little prison of synthetic hair. The wigs had made me a liar. I was a girl pretending to be a woman who really loved herself. But some quiet knowing in the center of my belly kept asking me what it would be like if I broke out of my prison. What would it look like if I told the truth to myself, to the world? I think it would look like this (snatches wig off), and I would go back to Bus 35, grab 9 year old Sonya by the hand, walk her off that bus and walk into womanhood with me, whispering, “you have always been beautiful” all the way.